Email is a time waster

Reading the paper on the train home from work I came across this article. Banning corporate email seems to be an extreme approach, but I do agree emails are sometimes a waste of time as its a poor form of communication.  I think we have become lazy with technology and send too many emails when a face-to-face conversation or a phone call would be more effective.

According to Radicati, 294 billion (in 2010) email messages were sent per day.  This means more than 2.8 million emails are sent every second and some 90 trillion emails are sent per year.  Around 90% of these millions and trillions of message are spam and viruses.

So by the company, Atos removing emails from their corporate environment they avoid having people waste time or putting systems in place to manage the spam and viruses.  By using  instant messaging Atos employees can increase their communication effectiveness through two-way real-time interaction.  Email is a broadcast mechanism and has little scope for real-time interaction.  However, I can’t help to think instant messaging alone is still a poor form of communication when compared to other alternatives.  It’s somewhere between email and phone conversation.  I have added a few additional communication options, including instant messaging to the below chart first created by Alistair Cockburn.

Many instant messaging tools now support video (including audio) and desktop sharing – so combining instant messaging with video and desktop sharing would provide a better and more effective communication channel than instant messaging alone.

Email still has its place, especially in today’s reality when you have a global economy where teams are distributed across different countries with different languages and culture.  And with this comes the reduced available timezone bandwidth that don’t allow the use of real-time communication channels.

According to the article in Digital Trends, the CEO of Atos Thierry Breton says

“It is not normal that some of our fellow employees spend hours in the evening dealing with their emails.  The email is no longer the appropriate communication tool.”

“Companies must prepare for the new wave of usage and behavior.  If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message.  Emails cannot replace the spoken word.”

For me, I agree with Breton and always prefer face-to-face conversation which explains why I find myself walking between office buildings in the city a lot.

Getting people together face-to-face provides richness in our communication through, tone of voice, eye contact, visual gestures and the ability to convey tacit knowledge.
— from my previous post

Maybe some level of pragmatism is required to educate people on when and when not to use email rather than having a zero email policy.

Don’t collaborate here!

I saw a few of these signs posted up around an office site I visited today and was amused by it.  The office cubicles were also very high (‘Dilbert’ cubicles come to mind).  In fact they were high enough that we couldn’t see people’s heads.  The workspace was definitely reflective of a non-collaborative culture.

A couple of my recent posts on Facebook and IDEO illustrates how teamwork and collaboration is important to the success of those organizations – teamwork and collaboration is part of their DNA.

If you go to an agile workspace you will generally find it a hive of activity with a lots of collaboration and verbal communication.  Anyone not familiar with how agile teams work would mistake this as (unproductive) ‘noise’ and wonder how people get any work done.  However, most people in agile teams get use to the ‘noise’ very quickly and are able to filter out the ‘noise’.  The high amount of ‘noise’ on agile teams never bothered me.  I found myself naturally developing selective hearing whereby I only tuned into conversations that were relevant to me and ignoring the rest.  That’s why co-location is important on agile projects – to participate in the ad-hoc conversations as well as having the richness of face-to-face communication.

Bridging Business and I.T. through Communication and Collaboration

How many times have you heard, “that’s what I said, but not what I meant or wanted”?  Too many times I would suspect.  Many symptoms of project issues are related to organizational, collaboration, and communication issues, not technology.  One of the challenges of any I.T. initiative is getting people to communicate and collaborate together, especially between business and I.T.


Wikipedia defines it as:

Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. […] Communication requires that the communicating parties share an area of communicative commonality. The communication process is complete once the receiver has understood the sender.

The last sentence above is quite important and often overlooked.  We rely too often on using static channels of communication, such as sending an email or word document to communicate a message.  However, the receiver of the message may not have understood what your intention is and we often ask ourselves “why people don’t understand it? I sent them the email with the requirements!”.

The sixth Agile Manifesto principle reminds us:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Getting people together face-to-face provides richness in our communication through, tone of voice, eye contact, visual gestures and the ability to convey tacit knowledge.


Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal.  Agile And again, we can look to the Agile Manifesto for some guidance:

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

During a team discussion, I liked what a fellow colleague said on what collaboration meant:

Collaboration means acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that the collective wisdom is better used to solve problems.  Collaboration is being vulnerable and being transparent so the conversation brings out things that were otherwise not consciously known.

My communication and collaboration experience

Over the last several weeks I have been coaching and facilitating several inception/discovery workshops that included both business and I.T.  One particular workshop was attended by 35 people from all levels of the organization with some participants traveling from interstate.  The goal of the 3 day workshop was to discuss and plan how we would tackle a large program of work by identifying the program vision, goals, drivers, measures and the various streams of work that would make up the program.

In the 3 days we accomplished what previously would have taken weeks (possibly months) to complete.  The face-to-face workshops provided a rapid, efficient and effective way to for people to communicate and collaborate.  An important outcome was obtaining a shared vision amongst all participants.  After the 3 days everyone walked away with a shared understanding and vision that they can take into the various projects that would make up the program of work.

What I also observed was the large amount of informal communication and collaboration that occurred outside the workshop hours such as during breaks and lunch that otherwise would not have occurred.  Getting everyone together allowed whole team discussions which I believed lead to greater buy-in by all team members.

There was a high level of collaboration between everyone in clarifying business requirements, the problem space and each others understanding.  The power of bringing people together to communicate and collaborate to achieve a goal was powerful.  Trust was being built between business and I.T..  The business was able to understand the complexities and risk involved in I.T. development.  And the level of negotiation between the parties allowed mutual decisions to be made and the quality of the decision making was made possible by having the right people together.

Agile stresses the importance on communication and collaboration.   Alistair Cockburn recently remarked how important it is to increase collaboration between people and across the enterprise.  Effective communicators realize that the goal is to share information, and that the information sharing is typically a two-way street.  Through conversation we can iterate over meaning and seek clarification.  The ability to answer questions in real time is important because questions provide insight into how well the information is being understood by the listener.  Face to face collaboration also reduces the cycle time of information sharing through continuous flow of tacit knowledge.

Agile is about bringing people together to achieve more than they could individually.  It is only if we have consensus through group collaboration that we can provide optimal solutions to address business problems.  So next time you want to bridge the business and I.T. gap consider increasing the amount of real-time communication and collaboration between the two parties:

  • Get all the players in the one place and talk.
  • Engage the right players to make decisions.
  • Leverage the knowledge of the team – listen as much as you talk, ask questions when you don’t understand, question if you do not agree.  There is no silly question!
  • Clarify and iterate over meaning to get a common understanding:
    • “So what you’re saying is…”
    • “Let’s use an example…”
    • “Doesn’t that imply…”
  • Find the value that each member adds to the group.
  • Think ‘one team’.   We stand or fall together.  Collaboration expands our potential to succeed.
  • Negotiate to reach an understanding, resolve a point of difference, or to produce an agreement upon courses of action.
  • Document and capture important information so it is best not forgotten (don’t document just for prosperity sake) – it is the dialogue that is important.

Software development is a creative process and any creative endeavor requiring teams collaborating together to share knowledge, learning, ideas, solve problems and build consensus.   Communicating and collaborating will always help you steer your way to a far more successful outcome.

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